Summer 2012
what is the contemporary urban experience?

Daytona Beach, St. Paul, 2007-2009

We bombed down to Daytona.
We had packed seven to the car;
I was Hermes among the satyrs.
I first met Liz at a tourist bar,
the kind with taxidermied alligators.

She had abandoned her sorority.
(Two score Tri-Delts hounding jello shots
all lemon-mouthed and their hair pulled taut,
rapt in ecstatic fungibility.)

We brownbagged down the thoroughfare
the perambulate exemplar, all halation and coronas
and give-away shades to fight the glare.
After a short ride in the elevator,
she got me stoned on her motel balcony
perched high above the parking lot.

Elizabeth, cursed by fate,
she was born in Minneapolis,
a descendant of the Huguenots.
She was singular and single, unabashed and unattached;
I was the loyal opposition, the stick part of the match.
She was the lotus eating pragmatist
and I was her doting reprobate.

And when the week was over, it was almost nightly calls.
After graduation, we moved together to St. Paul.

But we were never meant to be anything other than long distance
and all those well meaning sentiments
were replaced by the telephone anaphora,
tempered by more than disappointment.

I was going to get us back on course,
I declared one night, out drinking.
(Memoranda from the captain’s desk
drafted while the ship was sinking.)
But we could not save everything.
There was no single unifying gesture,
no roses in the rushes.
We’d fashioned wings out of wax and string
and we had ended up on crutches.

I was being difficult, she was being diffident.
She once said it was like we shared a birthday,
but our horoscopes were different.

We were never going to be Bonny and Clyde
but Elizabeth, at least she tried.
And the closest that we ever got
was “I love you, with some caveats.”

Odessa, TX, August 2011

I got a job in marketing, still living in St. Paul,
got a studio apartment in an okay neighborhood.
(morning sunlight, radiator, hardwood)
Joined a church, apostatized; a gym.
I’ve been listening to the Doors again
and a neighbor having loud sex through the wall.

There was a conference we were hosting
on social media and re-branding
(astroturfing and expanding)
value-added blog parsing and posting.

My manager, who refused to go, elected me his proxy.
Oh west Texas, shining buckle of the Nothing Belt,
where the kids throw rocks at passing cars
and huff airplane epoxy.
I pictured almost living in the hotel bar
or slumping through shit-hole happy hours
downing watered down and sweetened sours.
I could not envision a week in Odessa
beyond continental breakfast from a fiberboard credenza
(coffee pots and juice decanters,
hyacinths in plastic planters.)

Laid over in Dallas, strangers in miniskirts,
corundum eyes and halite teeth.
Sedatives and Cinnabon.
At a cowboy boutique near my concourse,
I bought a pair of boots with a wing motif.
The night’s last connection
dual prop and nearly empty.
The tarmac an ersatz Rothko.
I had the flight attendant move me;
I wanted to be too drunk to sit in the exit row.
The narcoleptic’s aimless lust.
Port side, ascending, neon ziggurats.
The roads spiraled out without a plan,
concrete fractalled out to macadam,
which then branched out into dust.
The dead lawn continuum,
the derivative, the partial sum.
Sodium light warbling in parallax.

The conference itself came and went
wholly without incident
and I spent most nights in, in a fucked-in chair
revising Power Point slides in my underwear.
In a week, I hadn’t left the hotel grounds.
(I hadn’t really cared to plus I didn’t have a car.)
So I sauntered down to the hotel bar
hoping the Akron guys would buy a couple rounds.

All dark and bricked by a shitty mason,
the decor was steakhouse modern, all fake antique and drab.
A motto, routed in a maple slab:
The Best Little Pourhouse in the Permian Basin.

A townie pulling for the Braves,
some cheesesticks someone microwaved.
The bartender spoke in pictograms,
the earnest ponytail of an exiled Angeleno.
The local Stonehenge in weathered Polaroids,
the Graboid country, the bake-sale void.
Yellowed clippings from the Reporter-Telegram.
And on the bar, crescent cualacino.  

With a fake I.D. and a blank expression,
a young geologist, perched hunched upon a barstool
from UT Permian Basin summer school
(a school named after a depression)
drank with a gusto tantamount to confession.

My complimentary drink tickets had expired,
and disappointed, I retired.

World’s Wildest Police Chases,
I Dream of Jeannie, Willie Bloomquist stealing bases,
Billy Mays’ heir apparent vending.
Twelve Monkeys, recut for cable t.v.
(advertisers hate unhappy endings.)
I rifled through the logoed lagniappes
and showered in a bathing cap.
The coffee maker hacked and coughed
and sputtered as I turned it off.
Dialing random numbers on the hotel phone
elicits valley dweller logatomes.
I made a fortress with the bedding
and decided to give the hotel bar another chance.

Shots with a bridesmaid from a boring wedding,
who ducked out during the first dance,
garbed in lilac taffeta and tulle.
The bartender put Seven-Up in my Moscow Mule
and so we sulked out towards the pool.
From the diving-board, still robed, alighting,
she was phocine in the recessed lighting.
She motioned that I ought to join her,
and was disappointed by my rejoinder.

Sirens bleating dirges, lash me to the smokestack of a train.
My ancestors shouting epithets
written in a ghost alphabet.
The dream of tumbling from an airplane.

I was still sleeping on a deck chair
when the first fire trucks arrived.
The evacuation signifiers, the smoke displacing air
the first responder pidgin, the T.V. anchor twang.
Some of the other guests huddled half alive,
stupefied, with eyes like targets,
high on monoxide and the chemicals in carpet
barefoot in bathrobes, mumbling a jackalope slang.
A hotel clerk mouthed a Pater Noster
as he crossed my name off of a roster.
(It was at that moment I realized I’d survived.)

I felt I had nothing to contribute
to the fire marshal’s report,
so I took a taxi to the airport.

revelating — telling it until rain — twice

Just remember people dress up in their Sunday best

to go to Walmart on Saturday night,

knowing about these things,

I didn’t come to Monrovia to learn about romance.


There’s nothing romantic about roadside stacks of pungent fish and mountains of trash and feces, perpetual sweat and lethargy and inhaling exhaust, incessant car horns and the chaos of motorbikes zipping in between cars and into oncoming traffic.


Sure, there’s the mango trees’ ripening yellow fruit. There are the women selling Liberian peppers, roasted corn, and fresh okra in the palm tree shade. There are the cozy mornings when the power goes out, silencing the world, except for the consistent rhythm of pouring rain and crashing waves.


But it’s not a pleasant city.


I’ve come to realize that I’ve romanticized every city I’ve ever visited. Glorified memories I have of these places. In an effort to honor reality, though, I find there is nothing romantic about Monrovia.


The city’s history of war is evident in grimy concrete buildings wounded with bullet holes, and in the occasional twenty-something year-old soldier-turned-beggar-amputee pounding what’s left of his arms against the passenger window of another UN vehicle. It’s understood in the overwhelming international effort to address the mass rape that happened here.


Monrovia’s an unlikely place for a twenty-five year-old woman to learn a thing or two about romance.




I have never been in love. It’s because I’m terrified of romance. Molestation does that to a person—takes the romance out of intimacy, I mean.


There’s shame, of course, but it’s more than that. It’s realizing after a decade that what happened happened. It’s spending four years forgiving oneself and learning for the first time that one’s sexuality isn’t dirty or for someone else. It’s learning that sexuality is natural and feminine and beautiful. And for me, too.




People don’t come to Monrovia to find love, but some happen upon romance.


They are impermanent, these people. NGO expats have earned their pats on the back after a few years in Monrovia. They coldly—and curiously—eye researchers who pass through in the summers with their bug spray and bright ideas. The consultants stay for a week or so, engrossed in their iPhone agendas and weather reports. And the UN personnel stay for months or years at a time, showcasing an array of sexy foreign accents and intercultural understanding.


Impermanence fosters an alternative reality here. It’s marked by unattached flirting, uncommitted sex, uncharacteristic courage, and, somehow, deep honesty. People are human here.




Lyra didn’t come to Monrovia to find romance. Her stint overlaps with the one-year anniversary of her fiancé’s death. He was a manly man; he could chop wood and fix cars. And he also loved biking and baking. He made the world’s best cornbread and always set an extra place at the dinner table for an unexpected guest. He fought for indigenous people’s rights and could talk about Nietzsche and Kant all night. “He always heard everything I didn’t say,” Lyra remembered.


 “From the core of my being,” he once told her.  They promised themselves to each other in the Wyoming woods six days before the car accident.


She’s spent most nights here with an American police officer.  He’s a gun-loving Christian with a high school diploma. She’s an Oxford-educated trilingual liberal.


Packing an overnight bag, she explained to me, “I know there will never be another man like James, which is how I can justify emotionless sex. It’s a distraction from knowing what I would’ve shared with him about this city.”


But he’s falling in love with her.




Sriti didn’t find romance in Monrovia, but she’s thought about him everyday here. She is an Indian UN peacekeeper living with her comrades in one of Charles Taylor’s old guest mansions. We sat in the marble lounge, sipping chai tea as my friend and I taught her some English phrases.


“I’m learning English on the internet,” she said, grinning. Then, looking around and lowering her voice, “I want you to teach me words for flirting.”


Two years ago, she met her boyfriend on an airplane. She had changed her seat to be near him. Though drawn to her, he was taken aback by her bold profession of what she thought of him. “He has all the qualities. He is handsome, good singer, good speaker. And he talks humorously.”


They chat on Yahoo! while she’s here, where she practices new phrases like, “I miss you,” and, “You’re cute.” Later, she showed us a photograph of her unsmiling husband and two children.




Ana didn’t come to Monrovia to find romance. She is happily married to her sweetheart of ten years who she met when they were teenagers, picking summer blackberries with friends on a Czech mountain.


She didn’t plan to be attracted to the German she met on a car ride to Liberia’s interior. She never told me his name or the extent of their relationship, but I gathered it was a mutual attraction and nothing more.


“I’m a good girl,” she explained, even though I already knew this about her. “I love my husband very much.” She paused.  “The thing is, it’s not my husband I’m worried about. What bothers me is being unfair to the German.”




I was beginning to understand this sentiment. Life in Monrovia is separate from life back home. It is temporary and distant.


Ana’s indication of this separateness isn’t the first I’ve learned of here. I have befriended an American military observer who has been in and out of war and post-war zones with the U.S. Army for years. His wife and three daughters in Montana don’t have patience when the Skype connection is bad.


“Tell me this. Did your dad ever leave you when you were a little girl?” He succeeded in shutting me up. He had become increasingly agitated with each question I asked about his family. They weren’t part of his life here, so it was better not to talk about it.


He goes through the motions of fatherhood and marriage in his short time at home, but “they don’t understand,” he said. He is alive here, cussing with his buddies and sharing stories of Afghani friends. They joked about the Liberian prostitutes we passed on Tubman Road after a night of dancing. It had taken a few Heinekens, but when I finally got him on the dance floor, he moved and laughed and refused to leave. He was alive, and his wife and daughters wouldn’t understand.




I found romance in Monrovia, but that’s not what I came here for. It was liberating but short-lived; he’s a permanent resident, and I’m passing through.


Another long-term expat explained to me that in Monrovia, one person enters the relationship searching for a partner, while the other is looking for a summer fling. It doesn’t work.


“When you come to Monrovia, you’re prepared for the poverty you’ll see, but you’re not prepared for the loneliness that comes with heartbreak,” she said. “And when you get your heart broken, you feel selfish grieving over it because there are more important things here that deserve your grief.”


So, people don’t come to Monrovia to find love. Though some do happen upon romance. Life here is unnatural, but I’m understanding romance in its natural rawness.


There is no make-up, no cologne, and no small talk over lattes. No awkward first dates or wondering who’ll make the first move. No rules or expectations.


For those passing through, there’s an acceptance of brevity. One-night stands and summer-long affairs. There’s mutual understanding but no commitment. There’s no guilt, really, and that’s okay.


In simplest terms, there is instinct. There is intimacy. There is complicity. There is sexuality. There are people.


And there’s a little bit of sweat.


Monrovia’s an unlikely place for a twenty-five year-old woman to learn a thing or two about romance.

The facet fixtures go first. And the locks and ceiling fans. Then the pantry followed by the neighbor’s garden and the coffee shop on 21st Avenue where the tweakers played chess and hid their drugs in the billowing ceiling. The skyline becomes a snaggletooth smile: some buildings you can conjure with high resolution, others aren’t there at all.

One day you’ll wake up and forget the name of your apartment building. You still remember the street you lived on. That will do for now. But the next month that will be gone, too. It must be written somewhere. You’ll find it later.

Our memory deprives us of our cities. They dissolve among the present needs: the shopping lists and haircuts and flat tires. And in the end, it’s not our forgetfulness we get angry at. It’s the feeling that something is being withheld.

That’s where nostalgia comes in.

I have friends who talk about the place from which they came as if they were still a part of it. How the historic neighborhoods or pastries were just right. The summer thunderstorms or the fierceness with which the locals lived. But the place is not theirs anymore. It never was. It’s a place; it has no personality beyond that which we impose on it.

I’m guilty of this, too. “The culture of Nashville acts like the humidity. It’s ubiquitous and inescapable and you can’t help but be conscious of it,” I’ve told friends in Portland. I haven’t lived in Nashville for two years, but it has a way of creeping to the forefront of my mind when I listen to “Elvis Presley Blues” or spot my bolo tie hanging next to my belts.

Alberto Fuguet, a Chilean director, shares this sentiment. In an essay for a Nashville paper, he wrote,

Nashville was a place — a myth, perhaps — that I knew existed but had no real idea about, except for some clichés that, eventually, would come in handy. Now... I realize that Nashville is inextricably part of my life and always will be. Funny how things work out. It is, no doubt about it, my "second city," my home away from home, the place I will always return even if I never visit it again. There are other cities that I have lived in for a lot more time... but there is something very deep and private about my relationship to Nashville.

Do you see what he does there? He anthropomorphizes the city. Speaks of it as if the city were a former love. Acts as though the city can jetset between Tennessee and Chile when he needs her to. But cities aren’t mobile; we’re the ones who move.

Yet, I disagree that we are as mobile as we like to believe. We can’t hop from one city to another and remain completely whole. Cities don’t leave you, they ooze out of you like sweat, leaving  a trail of unkept, fuzzy memories that may menace or pacify your present without warning. It takes a Greyhound ticket to leave a city but more than a lifetime for that city to leave you. And the tragedy is, you don’t get to choose what stays and what doesn’t.